“The Vagina Monologues” are well within the University’s mission



Lauren Sorantino

The University’s Gender and Women’s Studies, Peace & Justice Education, Communication and Theatre departments’ recent reading of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” ruffled feathers on and off campus.  Among the arguments shared against the play were that it uses “lewd” language, that it is a “pro-abortion tool,” and that it simplifies female sexuality “by reducing it to the vagina.”  Those who circulated these critiques all sought to prevent “The Vagina Monologues” from being read on campus, even arguing that the presentation contradicts the University’s mission.

I attended the reading of the play to see for myself how well any arguments against it held up.  I found that none were valid and all lacked basic understanding.  The criticism that the play is “lewd” was refuted at the beginning of the presentation.  It is made known in the introduction that the language used in the play was chosen incredibly deliberately and that the play’s “lewd”-ness—its use of words that society perceives to be indecent—is so central to its meaning. Acknowledging and vocalizing certain body parts is important because bringing the private into public has terrific repercussions.  In this specific case, the purpose of using words like “vagina”—words that make most people uncomfortable—was to erase the stigma surrounding women’s discussion of their bodies and their sexuality.  So yes—“The Vagina Monologues” uses language that is considered “lewd,” but it does so in order to make a meaningful political statement.  For this reason, dismissing “The Vagina Monologues” simply on the basis of its usage of “lewd” language is a minimal evaluation and an invalid argument against the University’s sponsoring of the play.

The criticism that the play is a “pro-abortion tool” was another argument circulated by protesters of the play.  This criticism is absurd, considering the fact that abortion was never brought up and pro-abortion rhetoric was not even alluded to.  The only time the concepts of childbirth or pregnancy were entertained was during the “I Was There in the Room” segment, which contained a painstaking description of the image of childbirth.  This image—the image of the birth of Ensler’s own granddaughter—was presented as unparalleled in its beauty and specialness.

Finally, there was the criticism that the “The Vagina Monologues” simplifies and demystifies female sexuality by reducing it to the vagina.  The source offering this criticism further argued that the play was contrary to the University’s mission, because “any depiction of female sexuality that neglects its unitive and procreative dimensions diminishes its complexity, its mystery, and its dignity.”  In reality, the play did quite the opposite of simplifying female sexuality. Instead of simplifying, the play opens up broad discussion, challenges norms and asks questions about female sexuality with the unique stories and emotions portrayed.  The argument that the play neglects female sexuality’s unitive dimensions is inaccurate, since some of the speakers’ sexual experiences, like the narrator’s in the “Because He Liked to Look At It” segment, were described as incredibly emotionally unitive.  I already noted that the monologues celebrated the beauty of birth, so it is wholly inaccurate to argue that the play neglects female sexuality’s procreative dimensions.  “The Vagina Monologues” exposes, rather than “diminishes,” the complexity of female sexuality and aims to establish female sexuality’s dignity by discussing it, rather than leaving it unacknowledged and suppressed.

Every element of this criticism is invalid, except for one: the monologues did attempt to demystify female sexuality.  In fact, I can infer that this demystification was one of Ensler’s main objectives in creating the play.  With that being said, is female sexuality really something that should remain mystified?  Further, is it really so contradictory to the University’s mission to sponsor a play that demystifies female sexuality?  Only a minimal, letter of the law interpretation of the University’s mission would allow for this question to be answered “yes.”  For this reason, I dismiss the criticism of “The Vagina Monologues” as a demystification of female sexuality—and instead praise the play for its attempts to demystify female sexuality.

These criticisms were clearly formed by people who either took the play at face value or did not see the play at all.  Upon watching the play with an open mind and a sense of understanding, I quickly found that an on-campus reading of “The Vagina Monologues” is well within the University’s mission and that the monologues have a place on this campus for a number of reasons.  While the University’s mission states that it is a Catholic Augustinian institution, it also stresses importance of building a just and peaceful world, nurturing a concern for the common good and discovering knowledge.  

“The Vagina Monologues” advances agendas of justice: it is strongly anti-genital mutilation, anti-domestic violence and anti-rape culture. It raises awareness about society’s tendency to unjustly punish the feminine, and it benefits Women in Transition, an organization that provides resources to empower women transitioning from atmospheres of violence.  

A University professor observed other ways the performance enriched our campus and fit our mission: “Performance provides a safe place where people can come together to learn about themselves and others and to hear big ideas—maybe to agree, maybe to disagree—but a place to listen and discuss,” Dr. Heidi Rose said. “Since its first production in 1996, The Vagina Monologues has given voice to a variety of real women’s experiences—making it okay to talk about bodies, making it okay to ask questions, making it okay to be open about sexuality and relationships. And in 1996 this was a big thing, showing women how much in their experience had been stigmatized and that they are not alone. Sitting in the audience Tuesday evening, watching students’ faces—both women and men—and listening to their laughter, the play continues to create togetherness and show us we’re not alone.”

“The Vagina Monologues” promotes agendas of peace, justice and equality. The play benefits an outstanding cause. It restores dignity to women whose experiences have been stigmatized. It promotes questioning and the discussion of big ideas. Most importantly, I witnessed how it created a strong sense of community and togetherness on the night it was read in the Driscoll auditorium on campus.  For all of these reasons, the University’s decision to sponsor a reading of “The Vagina Monologues” is well within its mission and it offered those who chose to attend an invaluable opportunity to listen and discuss.